The actor-screenwriter-director is into the whole truth (and nothing but)—whether it's a classic guide to good grammar, exposés of crooked foreign governments, a look at what actually drives mass media, or a gospel that illuminates the real message of Christ.
I can't decide which five books are the most important to me. When I was asked to do this list, I sat around, going in circles for a long time, before I decided to pick whatever came to mind and accept that, on some level, those chosen from the ether probably were (whether I liked it or not) the books that had had a resounding and significant impact on my life. There are a maddening thousand more, but these are the ones that—when I sent out the first echolocation in my mind—bounced back.
The Elements of Style
By William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
I have used this book faithfully since high school. Nowadays, of course, there are computer programs that have replaced most grammar and punctuation books, but what computers haven't replaced, and what this book also seeks to address, is the question of style.
I, like many, initially chafed at Strunk and White's ideas. Once I accepted that you had to learn the rules before you could break them, I set about what would become the oddly comforting task of getting to understand the true and ordered nature of the universe of writing. Perhaps the best thing in the book was what it taught (or tried to teach) me not to do. Their caution against overwriting, overstating, injecting opinions, and going on at length (I'm in serious danger of it here, in fact) was sorely needed.
This book is an essential tool. It has been of great use to me and is probably responsible for my best writing. I owe my successes to Strunk and White; only the mistakes are mine.
Shah of Shahs
By Ryszard Kapuściński
I majored in Middle Eastern studies in college, and it's a field that has held my interest over the 14 years since. Although it was published almost 30 years ago, this book is enormously relevant today—and a spectacular read.
Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who traveled the world and covered 27 coups and revolutions, by his estimate, mostly in developing countries. Shah of Shahs is his account of the 1978 revolution in Iran and the events that precipitated it. Picking up after the democratic election of Mossadegh in '51 and the American-backed coup d'état to unseat him (engineered in part by men named Roosevelt and Schwarzkopf), Kapuściński conjures images of the installation of the Shah, the use of his SAVAK secret police, and subsequent years of a brutal, murderous regime.
The historical narrative is elusive but cogent, and the snapshot structure is somehow perfect for the task—a man in an empty hotel, thumbing through photographs while a city burns. It reads like a mad travelogue, yet I learned more from it than from any of the proper history texts I read on Iran.
The book shows that ultimately the people of Iran had to choose between the oppression of SAVAK and the firebrand ayatollahs of the Islamic revolution. History tells us, of course, whom they opted for; Kapuściński tells us why they did so and shows us the madness and tragedy of how it happened. If you want more on Iran, there is a brilliant book on the American-engineered overthrow called All the Shah's Men.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
By Philip Gourevitch
This is an extraordinary account of a Western journalist trying to find answers in Rwanda in the years following the genocide. Yearning, peripatetic, and deeply accessible, it gave me an entrée into this monstrous event.
Gourevitch finds a very human path through the wreckage of an inhuman event. Riding in his wake, I felt as though I started to know a place I had never been. As soon as I finished the last page, I wanted to know more.
I sought out Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell—the section on Rwanda astonished me by rigorously detailing how Western powers failed to stop the genocide, sometimes deliberately. From there, I moved to Roméo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil, a first-person account of the political machinations in prelude to the genocide and the environment on the ground when it happened (as well as a brutally honest self-flagellation for what he believes are his own failings). Dallaire demonstrates what few in the West completely understood—that the genocide was not merely an African tribal eruption but was designed, planned, and orchestrated over a long period of time by a loose confederacy of politicians and military and private actors who stood to gain by it. Finally, I found Jean Hatzfeld's Life Laid Bare and Machete Season, interviews with genocide survivors and perpetrators, respectively.
Beyond these, I read innumerable books by survivors whose intimate stories led me to a broader study of Africa's Great Lakes region. Eventually, I found myself traveling to Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo—to hospitals, orphanages, displaced person camps, child soldier reintegration facilities. I had a desire to learn and to help, even if only a little, a place that had been racked with pain and war—a place I never would have known about without these authors.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
By Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is one of the most widely read writers on American foreign policy in the world. I read Manufacturing Consent in high school and decided to do a report on it for my U.S. history class. The report was a disaster—it took me another 10 years to understand the book—but it provided a radical shift in my perception of how the world operated. Chomsky and Herman demonstrate that while we pride ourselves on a "free press," in truth we have a press that is actually quite self-censoring, and thus hardly free at all.
Most of the media, they explain, are big corporations subject to the same pressures of competition as other corporations, a hard economic fact that fatally undermines their ability either to report the news honestly or to comment on it fairly. Instead of aiming to tell the truth to the American people—so that responsible democratic decisions can be made—the big media are in business to sell audiences to advertisers and are far more concerned with pleasing their shareholders than with letting anything be said that may disrupt that process.
Although the First Amendment is on the books (and sadly, today it functions chiefly to be exploited by tabloid media), Chomsky, Herman, and many of the voices with dissenting views are never invited to appear on our TV screens, unless they can dance—or swap wives. As a result, despite the sanctimonious and self-satisfied chest-thumping of pundits and politicians about the "free press," our press remains narrowly restricted.
I'm grateful to the book for introducing me to Chomsky, a political analyst whose startling brilliance comes from speaking plainly and without compromise about matters that others would wrap in a mendacious fog. Along with Howard Zinn—whose book A People's History of the United States had a similar impact on my life—Chomsky is a writer I believe everyone should read. You will not agree with either of them all the time (I don't), but even when you disagree, you will find both men challenging your preconceptions, making you think, and generally leaving you smarter and more compassionate than when you found them.
Book of Matthew
I chose this Gospel because saying the Bible is one's favorite book is both too glib and too broad. For this list, I leave aside questions of my own faith (which I consider a private matter), for clearly the book stands on its own as a piece of literature, philosophy, and a means to understanding our culture.
I never read the Bible as a child, and I expected that it would be full of fire and brimstone. This notion had only been reinforced by hearing one angry, hateful person after another claim to represent all Christians, as they wagged and pounded the Bible. Reading the Bible disabused me of any sense that a hateful person could represent this faith. The book is beautiful and exquisitely written—but it is characterized by one quality that colors every page: love. Beyond giving me a way to question the theological firmament of "tax cuts for the rich" by invoking "the eye of a needle" and "a rich man," reading the Bible made it harder for me to accept its being used to propagate damaging and small-minded beliefs in the name of Christian values. In the Book of Matthew, those values sound like this: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. … Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. … Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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